| Congress members celebrate the victory in Haryana outside the party's headquarters in New Delhi. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha
Chandigarh/New Delhi, Feb. 27: The Congress today decimated the ruling Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana to notch up a convincing victory, fuelling a five-horse race for the chief ministership.
The Congress won 67 of the 90 seats in the Assembly, putting in the shadow its stellar showing in 1972 when 52 of its 81 candidates were successful.
On the other hand, the INLD touched rock bottom with a tally of only nine seats and chief Om Prakash Chautala losing to state Congress working president Randeep Singh Surjewala at Narwana by over 1,800 votes.
Chautala, elected from Rori, conceded defeat by tendering his resignation to governor A.R. Kidwai this evening.
The BJP and BSP took one seat each and Independents romped home in 11. A record 11 from among 60 women candidates were elected. Cricket board president Ranbir Singh Mahendra added to the Congress tally by winning from Mudhal Khurd.
For the Congress, victorious after nearly nine years, all eyes are now on 10 Janpath with all five serious contenders for the top post rushing to Delhi to stake claim.
The first salvo came from state party president and three-time chief minister Bhajan Lal. Boosted by about 50 winners and eight Independents seeking his 'blessings' and expressing 'solidarity', the successful candidate from Adampur announced that though the party would decide on the chief ministership, he was the only claimant to the throne.
'If Bhajan Lal contests the Assembly polls, the people know it is to become chief minister. There is high voltage inside me now,' he said.
Indications are the party high command favours Lal for the top post though Sonia Gandhi, said an AICC functionary, may not personally prefer him for the job.
'It happened in Himachal Pradesh two years ago,' he said. 'Sonia was not convinced about giving a fresh term to Virbhadra Singh. But she gave her nod for his leadership to avoid internal tussle in the state unit.'
Lal's claim is contested by other frontrunners for the post such as former presidents Birender Singh Chauhan, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Shamsher Singh Surjewala and Chautala conqueror Randeep Singh Surjewala. Sonia's aide Kumari Selja is considered the dark horse.
The rival claimants, however, are deeply divided on an alternative candidate. 'We know that our inability to agree on a common candidate from among us could favour Bhajan Lal,' said one of them.
The choice of AICC observers for the election of a new legislature party leader would hint at the high command's preference.
AICC treasurer Motilal Vora, who might be one of the two observers, for instance, is understood to favour Lal. Janardhan Dwivedi, general secretary in-charge of the state, is said to think alike.
Sonia's political secretary Ahmed Patel, however, could favour Hooda over Lal.
Lal, who took over the reigns of a party tottering under Hooda in 2002, guided it to victory in the last Lok Sabha polls by winning nine of the 10 parliamentary seats. 'When I set my eyes on anything, I achieve it. But the party is supreme,' he said, adding that the victory was achieved under the guidance of Sonia, 'my leader'.
He is sure he would be anointed chief minister. 'The others have nothing to show.'
Congress sources said Lal stood a better chance as he had managed to bring the Jats back to the party.
Also, keeping Lal out could be inviting potential trouble from his faction, which may be the single largest bloc in the new legislature party, said the AICC functionary.
The sources believe Lal, who is not a Jat, could be asked to appoint a Jat as deputy chief minister.